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The Peace Of Christmas Eve
At Ghent five Americans—divided and far from home—held firm for a treaty that won their nation new respect, and began a lasting alliance
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
With pressures mounting, the British government slightly reduced its demands in its notes of September 4 and 19, but the notes were ambiguously worded, and after the British commissioners got through with them they were contradictory as well, in tenor if not in fact. London had sternly advised its representatives at Ghent to constrain their editing so that it did not alter intent, but neither they nor the Americans fully understood what the intent really was, and Goulburn did not mean to lose face even if his government did. To both notes, the Americans returned their usual exasperating retorts. These upset and infuriated the British Cabinet, but the annoyance of the transatlantic war itself was becoming politically unbearable and economically prohibitive. On October 1, Liverpool wrote to Castlereagh in Vienna of the Cabinet’s “anxious desire to put an end to the war. … I feel too strongly,” he continued, “the inconvenience of a continuance of the war not to make me desirous of concluding it at the expense of some popularity.” To accomplish this, the ultimatum with regard to the Indians was scaled down. The note delivered to the American dinner table just a week later no longer demanded an Indian state in the American backyard; it was simply necessary that peace with the Indians be part of the British-American peace treaty. The British also had omitted entirely any pretension of maintaining unilateral armaments on the shores and waters of the Great Lakes, a claim which they had already begun to soft-pedal in a previous note.
Thus the two insurmountable barriers to serious discussions had been removed. Of course the British Privy Council, with a bombastic assist from the eager Goulburn, could not refrain from stating their muchdiminished Indian ultimatum in abrupt and menacing tones: the Americans would accept this milder cathartic or negotiations would close. And, significantly, the note laid claim to a small helping of Maine. With confidence the British waited for the next mail pouch from their commanders in America; the news, they were sure, would justify making the peace treaty a real-estate deed—a touch of Maine, a bit of New York, an island, a fort, a port here and there.
The British note was delivered to a house whose occupants were getting on one another’s nerves. The confined living quarters and the frustrating pursuit of peace were taking their toll. None of the other American commissioners was long at ease with the querulous John Quincy. Bayard, who for six months had endured Adams’ company in Russia, thought the man “singularly cold and repulsive”; it is tragic when one reflects that Bayard was the closest thing to a friend Adams had in Ghent. And Clay, who by a mocking quirk of fate had rooms adjoining those of the commissioner from Massachusetts, grew even further apart from him. Not only were there extensive political differences, but Clay gambled, enjoyed foul cigars, did much to increase the landlord’s corkage profits, and reputedly gave vain chase to a resisting chambermaid. He emptied his room of card players and went to bed at five in the morning, just as John Quincy Adams was rising with the sun to begin his daily study of the Bible. When the day’s meetings and miscellaneous occupations were over, Adams joined the others at a four o’clock dinner and suffered through two more hours of cigar stink, bad wine, and desultory conversation. Most evenings he took a walk about the city—alone, he wrote his wife, because no one would go with him. He was in bed by nine.
By late September the three-storied house on the Rue des Champs resembled an isolated boarding school during winter term. Its occupants were tired of one another’s company, depressed by the plight of their country, and numb from British diplomatic attacks. They wrangled over trifles. For days they passionately disputed over which of their messengers and secretaries would carry which dispatch—and ended by not sending the dispatches at all. Gallatin and Bayard began to show signs of “despondency.” Momentarily they talked of complying with some of the terms in the British note of September 19, but Adams and Clay, acting in concert for a change, stiffened their resolution. It was well they did; for otherwise the British might never have had to give way in the note which now arrived on October 8.
The first American reaction to the note was circumspect but optimistic. For five days Adams and his companions drafted, edited, and debated their answer. Adams raged. He was violently opposed to accepting the Privy Council’s ultimatum on the Indians, softened though it was when stripped of its rhetoric. He wanted to match the “arrogance” of the fifteen-page British note word for word, insult for insult. He even exhumed Monroe’s instructions and decided that he and his colleagues should, after all, advise the British that it was to their own advantage to give up Canada. Gallatin and Clay tried to reason with him, but it was Bayard, being “perfectly friendly and confidential,” who calmed him down—by producing a bottle of Chambertin and dispensing solace and prudence along with the wine. Two days later, at noon on October 14, Adams joined the others in Clay’s room and grudgingly signed his name to their answer.